A very unhappy vacation: couple charged twice for Sandals getaway

luciaMari Ann Chaney paid for her vacation at Sandals in St. Lucia twice: once to her travel agent, which paid Watsonville, Calif.-based Happy Vacations, and again when she checked in.

Why did she and her husband, Tom, get billed twice? Turns out Happy Vacations suddenly went out of business, taking the Chaney’s money with them. When they arrived at Sandals, no one had heard of them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with a double-billing scenario and a bankruptcy. But this time, there’s no happy ending.

Here’s what happened to Chaney:

I booked a vacation through a travel agent, the deposit was paid with my credit card and the two other payments were paid by cashier’s check.

The travel agent paid Happy Vacations who in turn was supposed to pay Sandals. The original deposit was made in Oct 08. We received all of our travel documents for the flights and the Sandals stay.

When we arrived in St Lucia, we were told the vacation at the resort was not paid for and we would have to pay again. We were in a bad situation, traveled all night and part of the day as we flew from Oregon where we live, what choice did we have?

We paid again using our credit card.

I have been dealing with our credit card company for three months and have provided them with everything they have asked for and were denied. I have been dealing with a customer service dept in India who, I don’t think really has any idea what is going on.

I am wondering how it was our problem Happy Vacations didn’t send the money to Sandals and Sandals has allowed vacation companies to pay them after the fact as a way of doing business.

What other recourse do I have?

I followed up with the Chaneys. Didn’t they have any warning from their travel agent or Sandals that there was a problem?

I had an itinerary from Happy Vacations which indicated everything was paid and I had my travel documents.

I believe Sandals knew prior to my arriving that this was happening and thought if they had us there already, what choice would we have?

I will never use a travel agent again or go to a Sandals resort because of this. I have all of my proof I paid for this vacation and to pay for it twice is totally unethical and I can’t believe Sandals would do such a thing.

I contacted Sandals on behalf of the Chaneys. Here’s their response:

The Chaneys booked their vacation through Travel Leaders of Medford, Ore., who accepted payment and in turn, placed the booking with tour operator, Happy Vacations.

Happy Vacations subsequently went out of business without making the booking or paying Sandals Resorts.

In fact, until the Chaneys arrived at the resort, Sandals Resorts had no record of their reservation, which is why they were asked to pay for their stay upon arrival at the resort.

And regarding Ms. Chaney’s comment: “I am wondering how it was our problem Happy Vacations didn’t send the money to Sandals and Sandals has allowed Vacation companies to pay them after the fact as a way of doing business.” Sandals Resorts doesn’t allow companies to operate this way. Full payment is required prior to arrival.

The bottom line is that this is an unusual and unfortunate situation where the customer did end up paying twice, but their recourse is not with Sandals Resorts. The hotel got paid only once and that was by the customer when they arrived at the resort.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention and giving us the opportunity to respond.

That’s all Sandals will say on the record. I’m left with the impression that Sandals may try to make the Chaneys happy again, which would make me happy.

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So what went wrong here?

The first red flags were the cashier’s checks. If your travel agent or tour operator asks you to pay by cashier’s check, don’t walk — run. Handing a company cash is a bad, bad, bad idea for a number of reasons. Don’t do it.

(In a follow-up email, Tom Chaney said he asked to pay by cashier’s check.)

Second, the credit card dispute may not have worked because a) the merchant was more than 100 miles from the Chaney’s home address (under the Fair Credit Billing Act, the card company isn’t required to accept a dispute). Or, b) because the card was used to book the plane tickets, which the Chaneys were able to use.

Finally, a word about the Chaneys’ agent: When they were standing at the front desk in St. Lucia, a call to their agent may have been helpful. The agency could have contacted a Sandals representative in their area, and made special arrangements for the family — either a reduced-rate room or even a comp. Instead, they accepted the room charges.

Chaney says he contacted his agent, but it was unable to help him.

I contacted Travel Leaders. Here’s its side:

Happy Vacations provided the necessary travel documents for the reservation back to the booking agent, who in turn provided them to her client in person. Additionally, the client purchased travel insurance for the trip, but unfortunately, the insurance was directly through Happy Vacations. Happy Vacations was in business for over 40 years and this agency, which had a good relationship with them had no reason to suspect that it would go out of business so abruptly two months after the booking were paid for.

The agency appears to have done everything appropriate. However, it is our understanding that the agency, which is independently owned and operated, is going above and beyond in currently working directly with the client to reach an additional remedy for the situation.

Finally, we agree wholeheartedly with you that travelers should pay for their travel bookings with a credit card for the added peace-of-mind it provides.

Will there be a happy ending to this story, after all? I’ll let you know.

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Update (6 p.m.): An early version of this story didn’t contain Travel Leaders’ side of this story. On reflection, I should have sought its comment before publishing this post.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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